Political Self-Determination and the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict
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"The right of self-determination in regard to the question of membership in a state thus means: whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish either to form an independent state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with. This is the only feasible and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil and international wars."
–Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism: In the Classical Tradition, chap. 3, part 2
I would like to examine this passage from Mises through the lens of a real-world situation, one that has festered hot and cold for over thirty years, with roots that go back even centuries. One that is virtually unsolvable in any manner other than total war and potential annihilation—unless it is solved in the manner described by Mises.
On July 12, skirmishes broke out on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The fighting claimed at least sixteen lives in the most serious outbreak of hostilities in the South Caucasus since 2016.
Since the late Soviet era, Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mostly ethnically Armenian breakaway region of Azerbaijan. After the Soviet Union collapsed, ethnic Armenians in the territory declared their independence from Azerbaijan. But Azerbaijan still considers the area part of its sovereign territory.
You will forgive the extensive—yet broad brushed—history lesson; there is no story without it.
Armenians trace their history at least three thousand years, continuously inhabiting the regions of eastern Anatolia and the southern Trans-Caucasus. In 301 AD, the Armenian king converted to Christianity, well before Rome. The Armenian alphabet was invented early in the fifth century.
Independent rarely, conquered often: Arabs, Persians, Mongols, Seljuk Turks. The last eastern Armenian kingdom at Ani fell to the Byzantines in 1045 AD, then was razed by the Seljuk Turks in 1064. A Cilician kingdom, located northwest of the Gulf of Alexandretta, ended in 1375. This kingdom played a role in the Crusades; in his Ecclesia romana Pope Gregory XIII would write:
Among the good deeds which the Armenian people has done towards the church and the Christian world, it should especially be stressed that, in those times when the Christian princes and the warriors went to retake the Holy Land, no people or nation, with the same enthusiasm, joy and faith came to their aid as the Armenians did, who supplied the Crusaders with horses, provision and guidance. The Armenians assisted these warriors with their utter courage and loyalty during the Holy wars.
Intermarriages would follow, with Armenian princesses being wed to the European nobles. The last king of Cilicia, Levon (or Leo) V, is buried in France in the Couvent des Célestins, near Place de la Bastille in Paris, the second most important burial site for royalty after Saint-Denis.
Armenians would thereafter live under divided rule: the western portion under Ottoman rule, the eastern under either Persia or Russia. By the mid-nineteenth century, Armenians in both east and west grappled with issues of a nation divided and issues of independence—with Armenian political movements taking hold both within and outside of the region.
The role of these political movements played some part in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century events: the Armenian takeover of the Ottoman Bank (resulting in the Ottoman slaughter of thousands of Armenians in retaliation) created agitation on the border with Russia before and during the Great War (a pretext for genocide).
Unfortunately for the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, these events coincided with a rapid deterioration of the empire, with the loss of Greece and later the Balkans—to say nothing of much of North Africa and the Middle East, by now under European colonial rule.
Those in the West were subject to occasional massacres and the like beginning in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The largest of these was the Hamidian Massacres in 1894–96, when approximately two hundred thousand perished. These events culminated in the well-known genocide beginning in 1915, committed by the Turks during the Great War.
Deaths are estimated at between 800,000 and 1.5 million out of a population estimated at approximately 2 million. Some would convert to Islam to save their lives—often as servants, sometimes adopted. Virtually all survivors were expelled into the deserts of Syria, my grandparents included.
The regions to the east, outside of Turkish reach, were spared the worst of these atrocities; being far more mountainous, these regions were not easily overrun. These regions include what is today known as Nagorno-Karabagh (Mountainous Karabagh), or Artsakh, as Armenians refer to it. This is the region under contention today. Regardless of the imperial power, the Armenian princes here were able to maintain reasonable local rule—at least until the early nineteenth century and due to the Russian conquest.
Background to the current conflict: Armenians have a continuous history in Artsakh dating back to the time before Christ, perhaps as early as the seventh century BC. St. Gregory, the saint who converted Armenian king Tiridates III in 301 AD, established the Amaras Monastery in Artsakh in the fourth century. This was the site of the first Armenian school, in the fifth century, to teach the alphabet invented by St. Mesrop Mashtots in 405 AD. With the addition of onlythree letters, it is the same alphabet used today. Many Armenians consider this region the heart of Armenian culture.
Returning to the larger history, a brief independence was had in 1918, until war, hunger, continued massacres of Armenians, and an economy in shambles—driven by the results of the genocide, the Great War, and the communist revolution in Russia—resulted in absorption into the Soviet Union.
Of the three republics in the South Caucasus (Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan), Armenia was in the worst shape: countless thousands of refugees, landlocked and with no oil or meaningfully accessible natural resources. They held on to and somehow survived in an unforgiving land: brutally hot in the summer, unfathomably cold in the winter.
Lenin would soon sacrifice portions of western Armenia to Atatürk, the Soviets needing peace on at least some of their borders in order to secure the revolution. The Soviets and Lenin also ceded Nagorno-Karabagh to Azerbaijan in 1921, despite the population being over 90 percent Armenian. (At the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the region remained majority Armenian, at approximately 75–80 percent.)
There is also the story of the territory of Nakhichevan, an area west of Armenia and adjacent to Turkey under the government of Azerbaijan yet having no common border with it. It was a region subject to intense fighting between Armenians and Azeris in the years following the Great War, with the Azeris ultimately taking control and slaughtering ten thousand Armenians and razing dozens of Armenian villages.
In a statement that could be written today, British journalist C.E. Bechhofer Roberts described the situation in April 1920:
You cannot persuade a party of frenzied nationalists that two blacks do not make a white; consequently, no day went by without a catalogue of complaints from both sides, Armenians and Tartars [Azeris], of unprovoked attacks, murders, village burnings and the like. Specifically, the situation was a series of vicious cycles.
The British, seeing the hopelessness of the situation, left; the Russians came in their place. Thereafter, a referendum was held, with the remaining population voting to join Azerbaijan.
Fast forward past the superficial calm of Soviet control: in late February 1988, the Supreme Soviet of Nagorno-Karabagh called on the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union to transfer the territory to Armenia. Gorbachev would quash this idea. In late spring, Gorbachev dismissed the first secretaries of the Armenian and Azerbaijani Communist Parties. The Soviets could find no solution, as—typical for Soviets—national considerations were irrelevant.
Mass demonstrations would begin in the Armenian capital, Yerevan; hundreds of thousands of people would turn out in support of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabagh—and due to other issues of corruption in the Armenian Communist Party, environmental concerns, etc.
These protests regarding Karabagh resulted in pogroms against the Armenians in Sumgait, Azerbaijan; several dozen—up to several hundred—Armenians were massacred, out of a local Armenian population of eighteen thousand in this city of two hundred thousand. Azeri authorities did not intervene for several days. Memories of genocide at the hands of the Turks—and the Azeris are also Turkic people—were close at hand.
In July, Armenian protestors seized the international airport in Yerevan; it was soon retaken by Soviet troops. By November 1988, thousands of Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan would come pouring into Armenia.
But then (as if it weren’t bad enough), disaster. December 7, 1988. A massive earthquake, made worse due to the shoddy Soviet construction. Estimates of up to 100,000 killed (approximately 3 percent of the population), and up to 130,000 injured; countless thousands homeless, orphaned, or both. Meanwhile in Azerbaijan, joy at the suffering of Armenia, with yet more pogroms against Armenians, especially in Karabagh.
In August 1990, Armenia declared itself an independent state. In September, 1991, over 99 percent voted for independence. With protests continuing in Armenia over Karabagh, Azerbaijan would intercept or blockade goods from entering Armenia. Armenia, a landlocked country, depended on 85 percent of its imports to come through Azerbaijan, with the rest coming through Georgia.
Armenians in Karabagh held their own referendum for independence in December 1991. It was overwhelmingly approved. In the spring of 1992, relentless Azerbaijani bombing of Stepanakert—the capital of Karabagh—reduced the city to rubble. Armenian forces would retaliate—accusations of massacres by the Armenians of Azeris would follow. The capture of Shusha by the Armenians—a city where Armenians had been massacred seventy years before—proved decisive in the conflict.
During the brutal winters that followed, no heat for hospitals, universities, homes, or businesses. No fuel, no raw materials, no component parts, no medical supplies. This for a country still dealing with the ravages of the earthquake on top of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. And war—ongoing war with Azerbaijan over Karabagh, with no enduring (for the most part) cease-fire until mid-1994.
It is a unique cease-fire, one with no third party as guarantor. It is a role uniquely suited for Moscow, and a role perhaps only Moscow can fulfill; yet it has chosen not to do so. Russian troops are already stationed in Armenia; however, their duty regards the border with Turkey, not the border with Azerbaijan. That Moscow does not guarantee the cease-fire says much, perhaps, of the impossibility of the situation.
Since 1994, there has basically been a diplomatic stalemate punctuated with short outbursts of violence between the parties. Armenians in Artsakh are trapped by this stalemate.
Whatever one believes about my version of the history, two realities exist today: Azerbaijan wants a return of the land granted to it by the Soviets; Armenians who live on this land and who make up (and have made up) the vast majority of the population prefer independence or being under Armenian rule.
Further, Armenia must protect the Armenians living on this land today and continuously for thousands of years. Ludwig von Mises had the answer—the only peaceful answer—for such situations:
the right of self-determination of which we speak is not the right of self-determination of nations, but rather the right of self-determination of the inhabitants of every territory large enough to form an independent administrative unit. If it were in any way possible to grant this right of self-determination to every individual person, it would have to be done.
There is no chance, of course, that Azerbaijan will accept the outcome of such a referendum. There is also no chance that the Armenian government can stand if it allows Artsakh to be governed in any way by Baku; the history of genocide and the virtual certainty of future genocide or forced expulsions makes impossible this path.
For the Armenians—certainly in Artsakh, but also, to a large degree, in Armenia proper—this issue is existential. For the foreseeable future, war will be on the table—occasionally turning hot, just as it has in the last weeks. This conflict has no possible peaceful solution other than that offered by Mises.
Even with this, the troubles would not be over for Armenia. On the east and west, Turkic people; Erdogan of Turkey working to reestablish reach over the region—dreams of a rebuilt Ottoman Empire, or worse, a Pan-Turkic region stretching from Istanbul east to the edges of China, with Armenia the lone Christian nation in its path.
Armenia has survived in hostile territory for several millennia; with strong people on the land and a dedicated diaspora, it will survive this as well.